Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Top Ten List #8 The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

USA  (122 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Ned Benson 

All the lonely people…Where do they all come from? 
Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles, 1966, The Beatles - Eleanor Rigby (Original Animated Video) (1966) (2:45)

It takes a certain audacity to name a lead character in a film Eleanor Rigby, a featured character in a Beatles song, since the song itself tells a story of heartbreak, death and loneliness, where the movie follows similar themes, imagining a couple very much in love who seemingly have it all ending up nose-diving into opposite wavelengths, ending up alone, grief-stricken and depressed.  While there is some controversy surrounding this film and the different versions being released, the important thing to do is to see it, as it is startlingly effective.  It’s a powerhouse film with a cast to die for, rather miraculous for a first time feature film director, with elevated performances from Jessica Chastain (also one of the producers) as Eleanor Rigby and James McAvoy as Conor, the romantic couple at the center of the film, both offering career-defining performances.  Secondary characters include William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert as Eleanor’s off-beat parents, Jess Weixler as her younger sister Katy, with Viola Davis playing earthy, no nonsense college Professor Friedman, also Ciarán Hinds as Conor’s distraught father, with Nina Arianda (Alex) and Bill Hader (Stuart) rounding out the cast as Conor’s friends.  Ned Benson grew up in New York City, attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, graduating from Columbia University in 2001 with a degree in English and Film.  His only previous directing experience was writing and directing four short films, each made on a shoestring budget of $500 dollars, while also writing a play entitled Remission.  This film was originally released at the Toronto Film Festival on 2013 in a 191-minute version that interestingly explored each of the lead characters one at a time, where scenes repeat, but with subtle variations in dialogue and dramatic emphasis, becoming an extended character study on a disintegrating marriage.  Bought by Miramax Films, Harvey Weinstein decided to shorten the film down to a more audience friendly 2-hour movie called THEM, cutting 68-minutes of running time, where instead of sharing significant time with each character, their stories are interwoven into the overall fabric of the film.  Weinstein’s plan was to follow up this release with two separate films entitled HIM and HER, told from two different perspectives, which seen together may resemble the initial film (released in New York, while neither was ever released in Chicago).  Since Chastain’s performance is so brilliant, it’s hard to imagine which version the Academy might consider when contemplating awards, as this marketing scheme may backfire, confusing the audience to such an extent that they don’t show up at all, perhaps thwarting her opportunity for greater acclaim.  As a producer of the film, however, it’s hard to believe she didn’t have a hand in this streamlining process.  This beautifully directed shorter version, however, rather than being the disaster one might suspect, turns out to be one of the more brilliant films of the year, a stunning portrait of shattered lives and emotional devastation.    

For viewers looking for an adult approach to movies exploring serious relationships, look no further, as this film provides what few others even attempt.  It’s really an offshoot of Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), which explores how the mysterious disappearance of a friend changes the emotional landscape of those affected by the loss.  Similarly, Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #2 Margaret is another dramatic powerhouse dealing in loss, showing how a random death can alter the interior circuitry, resulting in inexplicable sorrow and confusion.  Benson is not the playwright Lonergan is, where he’s not able to capture the effortlessness of his language or the deep-seeded guilt and complexity of personal transformation, but he has conceived an extraordinary film that revels in the brilliance of the performances, where the eclectic musical choices beautifully highlight a changing emotional world, becoming a moody interior landscape of tormented lives consumed by unknowable anguish and despair from the inexplicable loss of a child, unable to find the right balance afterwards when their lives are destroyed by the loss, continually finding themselves in an uncontrollable state of flux.  John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010) explores similar territory, a married couple grieving over the loss of their son, or Nanni Moretti’s Palme d’Or winning film The Son's Room (La stanza del figlio) (2001), where the affected characters retreat into a disturbing sense of isolation, where the sublime beauty of these films is capturing emotional authenticity, often expressed in long, extended wordless sequences.  Due to the significance of the dialogue, capturing so many smaller, personal moments when two characters continually hold the screen, there’s an intensely theatrical feel, where this could easily have been adapted from a play.  The level of intimacy achieved throughout from both characters is stunning, which makes one think extended time with each person would add even more weight to the film experience.  This kind of thing has been done before, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder tried this with his television adaptation of BOLWIESER (1977), featuring a married couple on the rocks, starring the incomparable Elisabeth Trissenaar as the assertive wife who dominates and cheats on her husband with impunity, and Kurt Raab in his last Fassbinder performance as the masochistic near infantile husband whose sad descent into madness and utter despair is heartbreaking.  Fassbinder filmed a longer 3-hour version on 16 mm that accentuated the husband’s point of view (BOLWIESER), then re-edited the film down to less than 2-hours blown up on 35 mm from the wife’s perspective (THE STATIONMASTER’S WIFE), the only version available on DVD in America, which is essentially a showcase for Trissenaar.  Both of these films work due to the strength of the performances, but the longer version is among the more emotionally horrifying films he ever made. 

Without having seen the longer version, this shorter 2-hour film skips around quite a bit, opening with a happy couple in the thrall of love, seen through an overly sensuous vantage point, most notably a dance sequence to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - So In Love - YouTube  (3:32) shot in the dark illuminated by car headlights, a Terrence Malick technique used in BADLANDS (1973), but it’s highly effective here, creating a mood of lush romanticism. Jumping ahead several years, this is quickly followed by Eleanor’s impulsive jump off the Manhattan Bridge, where the mood shifts to extended scenes of trauma and internalized anguish.  Retreating to the safety of her parent’s house in Westwood, Connecticut, the gravity of the situation is not lost to the viewers, further emphasized by the way her family completely avoids talking to her about her feelings or state of mind, where the mental confusion becomes the focal point of the film, as she’s fallen off the edge emotionally and struggles to retain her balance.  Meanwhile Conor has opened a bar in the Village that remains mostly empty, reflecting the downbeat turn in his own life, commiserating in his misery with his best friend Stuart, the cook, before taking more desperate measures, moving in with his father, Ciarán Hinds, who is supposedly at the pinnacle of his career, running a highly successful restaurant, yet his life is in shambles as well, perhaps the most troubled character in the film.  Woven into the pattern of these withdrawn lives is Conor’s discovery that Eleanor may be taking classes at NYU, resorting to stalking/surveillance measures to root her out, but she remains frightened and is in no mood to see him, angrily walking away from him on the street, leaving an even greater gulf between them.  The scenes with Viola Davis are priceless, a professor ironically teaching identity theory, as despite her gruff and hard-nosed exterior, she’s a devoutly loyal friend whose concern is genuine, making her a needed ally in the center of the storm.  Each marital partner continues to have thoughts about one another, but the mood of grief and depression is overwhelming, a seemingly unbridgeable gap, where the spaciousness of the film leaves plenty of room for interpretation, enhanced by the electric soundtrack of Son Lux, where their song “No Fate Awaits Me” is heard over the official trailer, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby Official ... - YouTube (2:23), with snippets of dialogue interspersed throughout, but very little is ever explained, instead it’s expressed in long scenes where the internalized anguish of the performances are the real highlight of the film. It’s rare to see a film this committed to the authenticity of the characters, where it’s fascinating to get under their skin, two people whose lives have been altered beyond comprehension, who can’t even look at each other any more, or be in the same room, as their presence is too painful a reminder of what they’ve lost.  While there are brief moments of shared connectivity that show a profound, deep-seeded understanding, the two dance around the issue throughout the entire film, resembling the utter interior devastation of Visconti’s White Nights (La Niotti Bianche) (1957), a choreography of missed opportunities where what lies ahead may well resemble where they’ve been, as a part of them has been unalterably broken, suggesting grief and heartache may always lie between them.  The final shots add a lyrical grace note of screen poetry, and while there is a hint at hope, no clear picture is provided, remaining ambiguous, a couple left adrift, two shadows in the night that mirror one another, where we’re left to wonder if they will ever find their way.  

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